Increasing Charitable Donations: A Research Perspective
Asking people for donations is one of the biggest challenges for many charities. It can be especially difficult when the charity can’t provide an obvious reward or payoff for the donor — as a behind-the-scenes, capacity-building organization, the Faunalytics team can relate!
Many studies have been conducted on the topic of increasing charitable gifts, and previous researchers have attempted to review the existing studies on this topic. In this study, the authors attempt to take a broader view by conducting what they call a “meta-meta-review,” or a review of existing reviews on charitable donation research. They analyzed 21 meta-studies of 1339 primary studies, with over two million participants in total. They were most interested in exploring which interventions increased donation occurrence and donation size.
In general, interventions that increased awareness had small to moderate effects on donations. This included “the pique technique,” where potential donors are asked for an oddly specific amount of money (e.g., $1.07 instead of $1.00). The strategy was designed to pique the interest of the potential donor, so they’ll ask for a rationale behind the donation request. This intervention increased donations and donation sizes, but it’s unclear whether it works with larger amounts of money.
Likewise, emphasizing the charity’s neediness (for example, showing that every little bit helps and highlighting why a cause is urgent) was shown to increase donation size. Finally, the “identifiable victim” strategy — giving a name and identity to those who will benefit from the donation — was an effective strategy to increase donation size. When charities showed more victims, donors tended to feel their gifts would make a smaller impact.
Interventions to reduce the cost and increase benefits for donors showed weak effects on donations. For example, highlighting tax deductibility was effective for bequeaths and high-income donors. Legitimizing small donation amounts (e.g., saying “every penny counts!”) increased donations but lowered the donation amounts, as donors are excused for giving less than they normally would. Meanwhile, using donation matching, gain-framed messaging (i.e. framing donations as losses averted), and the “door-in-the-face” approach, where a large amount is requested followed by a much more attainable amount, had no significant impact on donations.
Interventions to increase donation effectiveness were helpful in some situations, but not others. Specifically, “prosocial modeling” (where people view others behaving in altruistic ways) increased donations, while consuming prosocial media such as T.V. shows, music, and video games, as well as increasing the certainty of a donor’s benefit, did not reveal any significant effects on donations.
When it came to interventions focused on increasing donor reputation, they were only marginally effective. This included donors and their gifts being observed by others. Likewise, concealing a donor’s identity and gift size tended to decrease donations. However, being observed artificially (for example, by placing eyes above a donation box) did not reliably increase donations in the long-term. Nor did donations that were decided upon by a group as opposed to an individual.
The review also looked at other, uncategorized interventions. For example, two papers explored the “crowding out” effect, where donors are motivated by impact and avoid causes that are already heavily supported by government funding. There was weak evidence that the more government support a cause receives, the less private funding it gets. Another paper found that reducing the donation options available to donors decreased the likelihood of giving.
It’s important to point out a few limitations in the study. For example, the effect size of most of the interventions was relatively small, many of them were tested in laboratories versus the real world, and they used small amounts of money (less than $10). Therefore, the authors suggest that charities use their best judgment when designing an appeal, relying on their expertise and the donation context.
For those looking to apply the results of this study, the authors outline five strategies that seem to be the most effective:
- Focus on donor confidence: When donors are confident that their gift will make a difference and know who they’re supporting (e.g. through the identifiable victim effect), they’re more likely to give. Donors also tend to respond when they see others supporting a cause, especially when they’re part of the donor’s social group.
- Give valuable information about why a donation is necessary: According to this study, donors are more likely to support a cause that they perceive as desperate or urgent. This means highlighting the urgency of an appeal and why it’s important to donate now. Using the “pique technique” may be especially helpful here, as it will encourage donors to ask about the donation request.
- Help donors look good: When donors give, use it as an opportunity to celebrate their support to others. However, it’s important not to pressure or guilt donors who do not give.
- Use nudges cautiously: Using cues like “every penny helps” can be an effective way to nudge donors to give. However, this study showed mixed results on other nudges, which means that practitioners should use their best judgment and prior experience when choosing a nudging method.
Advertise tax deductibility: This is especially the case when seeking bequeaths and gifts from high-income donors.